The Mellified Man

24 Sep

Yesterday, the hives were raided. A local bee keeping club performed their annual extraction process, shooing the bees away with smoke and soft brushstrokes. The frames were stacked in ordered boxes and later a centrifuge would separate out the honey from the wax. This is a process that I have taken part in many times. Sometimes you find artifacts in the hives. Pieces of dirt or sticks that accidentally got in during the last hive-opening, or perhaps invading insects that got trapped and slowly covered in wax and honey. These objects have been perfectly preserved, cast perfectly in the goo.

Honey is excellent at preservation. Almost pure sugar, very little free water exists for microbial growth. And even if microbes do get in they’d have to deal with the substance’s acidic, hydrogen peroxide-rich chemistry. Kept dry, honey from ancient Egypt is just as edible as our last Friday’s batch. This has not gone unnoticed. Fruits, grains, and meats are often preserved for years and this was a common way to keep food fresh before refrigeration.

However, not just food was preserved in honey. Corpses were too. When Alexander the Great died in Babylon, his corpse was embalmed in honey for his trip back to Macedonia. As were Spartan kings, the emperor Justinian, the philosopher Democritos, and many other famous figures. Both Greeks and Egyptians thought honey had a special connection with the death and spirit and anointed cadavers with it. Bitter life, sweet death.

Then there is the process of mellification. Stories have been told since the 13th century about people unearthing and eating jars of old honey that, unknown to them, contain human remains. But not all cannibalism was accidental; medicinal properties are often attributed to human remains. Mellified man is little more than a rumor, but it is said that Arabian elders would sometimes sacrifice themselves at the end of their lives to benefit their community. The elder would start to change his or her diet, consuming only honey until even their excretions were made of the stuff. They would die soon after. The remains would then be preserved for 100 years in more honey before being opened up and sold off as a cure for broken or wounded limbs.

This story has not been proven, but would not be the weirdest medicine out there. Nor, given the great spiritual weight honey seems to hold, too out of place.

Sources: Wiki: Mellified Man, Waikato Honey,, Honey Health,


Posted by on September 24, 2011 in Anthropology


4 responses to “The Mellified Man

  1. Becoming herself

    September 26, 2011 at 1:36 am

    Absolutely fascinating. ‘Mellification’ is a word (and concept) I haven’t come across before.

    • theglyptodon

      September 26, 2011 at 11:54 am

      Thank you. The myth is a bit difficult to track down since honey has a lot of myths attached to it already, but I found the idea of honey mummies fascinating. By the way, mellification can also simply mean the process of making honey.

  2. misplacedperson

    September 26, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Honey has been (and sometimes still is) used as a wound dressing.

    • theglyptodon

      September 26, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Neat! Thanks, I’ll remember that.


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